Fort Kochi, elephants, houseboats and yet another mishap

Michael Beatty

You may remember the end of my last ramblings where I mentioned the entire State of Kerala in southern India was ordered to go on strike in protest against the Federal Government’s rupee tax crackdown. I also mentioned I was suffering cow deprivation. Well, the update is that the state did go on strike although the majority of shops catering to tourists in Fort Kochi remained open and I now know the reason for the lack of cows.

Photo: Michael Beatty

Throughout the centuries, Kerala and Fort Kochi in particular has been occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Hindus, Moslems, Christians and Jews have lived side by side and have become remarkably tolerant of each other. That tolerance extends to their eating habits. Many Hindus in Kerala actually eat beef. The cow may be ‘holy’ but the male of the species is likely to end up on a dinner plate if it can’t be gainfully employed in the fields. Why? Because beef is cheaper than chicken or mutton (goat). There are no cows wandering the streets and the alleyways here. There are virtually no street dogs either. In fact, there are very few dogs at all. There are however a lot of goats, which makes me wonder why mutton is more expensive.

In Fort Kochi we’re staying at the Old Courtyard Hotel, a beautiful boutique heritage hotel that’s listed in the Indian equivalent of the national trust. In fact, the six square kilometres around us is called the heritage zone and there are some magnificent old homes and churches that date back to the late 15th century. The fishermen here also use a special cantilevered net that came from China more than 600 years ago and cannot be found anywhere else in India. Sightseeing wise, the old Dutch Palace is worth a look, as is St Francis Church where the legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried for some time. The first Jews came here in 72 CE fleeing Roman persecution and more came later fleeing the Moors. The original Jewish synagogue is worth seeing as is Jew Street itself, although only 14 Jewish families still live there. The rest returned to Israel.

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Michael Beatty

I’ve mentioned several times to ‘him upstairs’ that a lotto win would be appreciated. So far he’s either ignoring me or sleeping on the job. The shopping in Fort Kochi is as diverse as it is munificent. Not just clothes and jewellery are on sale, but some of the most beautiful antiques you have laid eyes on, many dating back centuries. Our ongoing lack of ‘readies’ makes purchasing anything a distant dream. But if we eventually do score a lotto win I’m coming back – and I’m going shopping.

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Michael Beatty

WOW! We got lucky! Our driver Mani says that an eight-day festival has just kicked off at Sree Poornathrayesa temple not far from Fort Kochi. Evidently it’s a celebration of the God Vishnu and features ceremonial elephants and drummers. He can’t guarantee there’ll be a performance when we get there but it’s worth a look.

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Michael Beatty

As I said, we got lucky. A 30-minute performance has just started when we arrive and after the customary shedding of shoes, we’re treated to something that was both magical and electrifying. No artificial amplification, just over 30 drummers pounding out a hypnotic rhythm that sends shudders down the spine. Behind them, 15 elephants stand majestically in colourful ceremonial robes and draping banners. They appear oblivious to the cacophony of sound. On their backs bare-chested mahouts keep time to the beat waving swords and effigies of the gods. It really is something else!

Michael Beatty

When the performance ends the elephants retire to the rear of the temple where they’re washed and fed huge mounds of bamboo and banana leaf.

Michael Beatty

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We’re told there are about 700 elephants living in temples in Kerala alone. Most were former logging elephants that have found peace and tranquility in Hindu places of worship. I can’t help but wonder what happens when the males go into “musht”. I learnt about this when we were doing a story on the Kings Elephants in Thailand for the wildlife program. In many ways it’s the equivalent of a female human’s period. And yes, I know some ladies get a touch irritable during this time but male elephants can get REALLY cranky. You do not want to upset a male elephant who’s not feeling the best. Oil usually secretes from glands on the sides of their head and this is the sign that they must be kept calm at all costs. Luckily none of the elephants we saw appeared agitated. Quite the reverse.

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Next stop is Aleppy. It’s been called the Venice of India and with good reason. It’s in an area called Kuttanad, which is the rice bowl of Kerala and consists of scores of rivers and canals winding their way through vast areas of reclaimed paddy fields and small islands. It is stunning. Along the banks people go about their daily lives in much the same way they did a couple of centuries ago. These days of course everyone has a mobile phone and all children go to school. They either go on one of the many ferries or paddle themselves in tiny wooden boats.

We’re staying at Pooppally House, a heritage homestay owned by a delightful couple Joseph and Cecily. The actual house was built by Joseph’s grandfather 125 years ago but the extension we’re staying in is solid teak and was transported down from the hills. It’s 250 years old and quite beautiful. Joseph is 87 and a retired Catholic school teacher – he’s very fit!

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Michael Beatty

Although we’re booked on an overnight stay on one of the 3,000 houseboats that glide the rivers and lakes, Joseph advises us that the best way to see the communities that live on the narrow canals is to hire a smaller boat. So the next morning we do just that. Big mistake.

Michael Beatty

When Joseph said small, I thought he meant very small. All the boats we pass appear too large until we eventually see a two seater. Mani explains that we just want to see the small canals and after 15 minutes of haggling we agree on a price. The boatman is one of those guys who always appears to be arguing even if they’re not.

It’s only when we’re climbing into the boat that I notice there’s no engine. The boatman picks up a paddle and motions for me to do the same. For some idiotic reason I figure it’s too late to pull out now. I figure we’re not going to see many small canals at this rate of knots! Right again Michael.

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Michael Beatty

After snailing up the main river we finally turn into a small canal where the boatman pulls into the bank and gets out to have what appears to be a heated argument with a woman in the house. After 15 minutes he emerges and we set off, only to once again pull into the bank half an hour later. He motions for me to get out and I should have ignored him. My balance isn’t the best these days due to issues with my left eye and I manage to tear a huge strip of skin off my left shin. I haven’t had a lot of luck with shins and had to have 22 stitches in them after a headfirst plunge down the stairs in our house. This obviously didn’t look as bad but it was bleeding profusely and we had no bandages on hand. Luckily Cecile had an antibacterial wipe so we tried to clean it up and then had to stop the bleeding with some cloth borrowed from the village.

Michael Beatty

One hour and another argument later (this time with the owner of a house we were passing), we finally arrive back just in time for another argument. This one is about money. We’d agreed on a price but he wants more. Cecile is getting annoyed and in much the same way as you don’t want to annoy a male elephant suffering musht, you do not want to annoy a Filipina. The small but fierce one is not having a bar of it and luckily Mani arrives and we drive off to find a chemist.

Michael Beatty

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I won’t bore you with any more shin whimpering but suffice it to say that the bandage prescribed by the chemist just stuck to the wound and it was only when Joseph dug out some Turmeric that the bleeding slowed down. Turmeric is one of the spices I use in my curries so needless to say there’s lots of it in India.

The next day we’re off on our overnight stay on the houseboat. You basically cruise from midday to 5.30pm and then overnight on the banks before setting off at 8am for another hour and a half cruise. All I can say is just do it! It is simply breathtaking even if you don’t get down the smaller canals.

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